Beer 101: What am I drinking anyway?
Lager or ale, what are the differences? It all boils down to the type of yeast used during fermentation. Due to its microscopic nature, yeast was the last ingredient in beer to be recognized. The German Beer Purity Law of 1516 originally listed three ingredients as the building blocks for beer; barley malt, water and hops. Yeast was added later as technology improved and humans discovered that by looking through a microscope they could see a whole new life to beer. Literally. They found tiny little animals living their entire life cycle in beer. That is enough to make some of us envious. This yeast consumes the sugars that are produced by the malted barley. The waste products that the yeast excrete are alcohol and carbon dioxide. Two very necessary components in finished beer. Who said potty humor can’t be educational?
Ale yeast was isolated first and is much easier to handle. Ale is considered to be “top fermented, and lager “bottom fermented”. This has nothing more to do than the feeding habits of the two yeast strains used in beer production. Fermentation temperature and duration are other factors that differentiate the two beer styles. Ales are fermented in the range of 60-70 degrees for five to ten days. The warmer fermentation temperature allows the yeast to produce esters which give the ale a fruity flavor and aroma. English ales are legendary for this flavor character. Look for a Fullers London Pride for a tasty example. Porters and stouts are also a part of the ale family.
Lager yeast was isolated in the latter part of the 1800’s. Lager beer is fermented in the 40-50 degree range for ten to fourteen days. Yeast move slower in lower temperatures, the slower fermentation does not produce the esters found in ales, thus producing a much cleaner flavor. After fermentation, the beer is aged, or lagered, for a period of two to four weeks at a temperature of 33 degrees before filtering. Before the invention of refrigeration, lager was fermented and aged in caves for natural temperature control. Lager only became popular after refrigeration became economical. Your Budweisers and Heinekens fall into this family. We’ve all heard the marketing gimmickry tied to lager beers. “Cold aged” and “Cold filtered” are done out of necessity and are not secret patented processes. Warm filtering would be a challenge. Thankfully not all lagers are created equal. Oktoberfest, Munich helles, European Pilsner and dopplebock are also members of the lager family.
Whatever your personal taste desires, be it heavy, light, dark, sweet, or hoppy there are ales and lagers that will fit any occasion. Remember this the next time you reach for “the coldest tasting beer in the world”.
In Other beers: The Keg on Gregory Street is now proudly serving Ithaca Beer Co.’s Cascazilla, a very fine strong red ale. The waning days of summer are winding into Autumn. A friendly reminder of this was the first taste of Custom Brewcrafters Wee Heavy. Barrel aged and cask conditioned at Monty’s Krown.